BOTTLE TO THROTTLE
The fighter pilot image perceived by the public from their personal observations coupled with that projected in stories like some of mine would lead many people to believe that all fighter pilots in past wars were hard flying, heavy drinking, hell-raisers. Such an image is not unjustified in many cases. The title Fighter Pilot applies to all aviators who fly tactical aircraft used in hazardous air to air and air to ground combat operations. Many pilots, regardless of the aircraft they fly, are fighter pilots in mind and spirit as evidenced by their brazen lack of fear and a determined win-win warrior aggression. Fighter pilots are a close knit band of patriots and warriors in love with their unique death defying profession. They relish the proud camaraderie inherent among inspired daredevils who daily live close to violent death in the skies and who particularly enjoy frequent celebration of their good fortune in surviving another exhilarating flight. Fighter pilot evening celebrations would normally include lusty singing, raucous chants, physical stunts like Dead Bug, gambling for libations, no-shit animated flying sagas, and shooting flaming Courvoisier. Another of my Da Nang hootch mates Death Angel fighter pilot and artist Colin Ruthven ably depicted some of the after hour activities.
The rules of behavior for professional military men have changed considerably over the past twenty years with the emergence of the feminist movement and its attendant truth destroying plague labeled "political correctness." Radicals in Congress have expended their time and our treasures purging the military services of macho male warriors and advocating replacing them with females, pacifists and homosexuals. Nevertheless, the hearts and souls of the true fighter pilots are just as spirited and courageous as in the days of the Red Baron. However, they are now required to behave in a more stately, dignified and gentlemanly fashion when not actively killing our Nation's enemies. One Vietnam draft dodger US President had a policy for eight years of "Do as I say, not as I do" at the very time the he-man military was being emasculated.
Aviators have been introduced to many adages and traditions over the years, not the least of which was the unwritten rule, "Eight Hours Bottle to Throttle." I can think of no living tactical aircraft pilot who routinely drank and flew. Drinking and flying was a terminal disease. The Fighter Pilot Breakfast became famous because of the nighttime consumption of adult libations and the resultant morning hangovers. The fighter pilot breakfast originally consisted of a Coke, a Smoke and a Choke. And, if extra lucky, a Poke! Following the recovery process of eight hours and the minimum prescribed breakfast, a pilot could be expected to perform required hazardous flight maneuvers in his usual expert manner.
I vividly remember one Spring night in 1967 sitting at the Death Angel squadron table at the Marine Air Group Eleven Club at Da Nang. We had rolled the dice for several rounds of drinks and were singing songs and toasting our good fortunes. A fearless Tiger Death Angel first lieutenant who was temporarily assigned to Group Intelligence as a combat mission briefer stood up and said, "See you guys in two hours. I'm off to fly a TPQ mission to the DMZ!"
"Hold it Cool Hand Luke!" I said sternly. "Are you telling me that you are going to fly a 235 Crusader tonight?"
"Sure." The lieutenant replied. "I fly a couple of night TPQs every week to stay current in the F-8."
I stood up. "You are not flying one of our aircraft after drinking."
The officer said defensively, "I've only had a couple of drinks. No more than any other pilot would consume before flying!"
"Nobody drinks and flys any time, any place." I countered. "Sit down. I'll be back." I knew some field grade officers flew after consuming a few drinks but I was not about to admit that in front of a half dozen company grade officers.
I left the Club and headed for the Operations tent. I couldn't fly the sortie because of my alcohol consumption. No one at the table could fly for the same reason. It was dark, but I could barely make out the tall, lanky figure of First Lieutenant George Cummings striding across the compound towards the twelve-hole outhouse crapper. He was coming from the direction of the flight line. George was another tiger. He reminded me of Joe Foss, the WW-II Marine aviator hero. George Cummings always wore his G-suit loosely flapping about his legs and that night was no different. I shouted, "Hey George! You want one more flight?"
George stopped and looked in my direction. "Sure! You bet I'll take another hop!" He did not ask me why, where or what type. He just jumped at the chance to fly. George was my kind of fighter pilot! Chances were that he had already flown two sorties that day and still was eager to launch on another, to any target, anywhere in southeast Asia--at night. What a guy!
I went back to the Club and talked to the eager young Warrior. Luke thought it was acceptable for fighter pilots to have a few drinks before flying. "After all," he related, "On at least two occasions a major I was drinking with ordered me to fly night combat with him." I stressed that the only acceptable time for pilots to drink was after their flight, at cocktail hour, at the end of the days work. As the squadron Maintenance Officer I kept a record of aircraft mishaps. The young pilot had experienced two Crusader night taxi incidents during the past few weeks. He had taxied into an unlit bomb trailer on the edge of the flight line about a week before. On a previous flight, he had taxied a main tire off the edge of the concrete apron and the plane had to be towed to the revetments. His incidents could have revealed a pattern of someone possibly drinking and then operating equipment. The life of that young Tiger lieutenant was possibly saved by the actions taken that night. He was a superior pilot and distinguished himself in combat. Cool Hand Luke was confident as well as fearless and a real pleasure to fly with. He went on to safely complete his combat tour in Vietnam and 25 years later retired from a highly successful career in the Marine Corps.
I can recall flying only twice without meeting the eight hours bottle to throttle rule during 6500 flight hours in the Corps. The first time was at Naha, Okinawa when a 180 MPH Typhoon made an unexpected course reversal after passing the island. The A4A Skyhawks of VMA-211 had made the Typhoon Evacuation flyaway from our deployment base of Naha to our home base at Iwakuni, Japan. A couple of days later, when the typhoon passed Okinawa, the squadron was ordered to fly out of Iwakuni for Naha and to continue our training deployment. We landed at Naha in bright sunshine during the the afternoon and quickly changed clothes and hustled into Koza to raise hell. After midnight, the winds picked up and the weather guessers warned that the typhoon was returning to Okinawa. The Air Force ordered us out of Naha Air Base. The last of the squadron pilots were finally rounded up about 2 AM and launched in two plane flights into the horizontal rain, 300 foot ceilings, and 45 knot winds 45 degrees off runway heading. As the last flight out of Naha and the only pilot with two wingmen, Larry Bagwell and Vic Steele, I decided the only sure way to get airborne and keep contact with my wingmen was to make a three plane, no flap, parade formation takeoff. We took the center line on the most favorable runway which was to the north. Vic and Larry lined up with overlapping wings. It was coal black with gale driven horizontal rain. We released our brakes simultaneously on my "Go" call on tower UHF frequency. I gave them 4 percent power to play with as we accelerated toward a dark 4AM takeoff into weather far outside the safe parameters of the A4 aircraft. Vic and Larry were tucked in tight and proved to me they were ready for the Blue Angel flight demonstration team. We raised the wheels after airborne on my command and immediately entered the clag of the typhoon where we remained climbing on course for the next 40 minutes. Finally, we arrived on top of the clag about 30 thousand feet where the moon and stars were a welcome sight. We landed at Iwakuni as dawn was breaking. Upon arrival we were happy to learn that the entire squadron had made the second flyaway safely.
My second time of violating the bottle to throttle rule was at Atsugi Base on another deployment. I checked the flight schedule in the afternoon and did not find my name on the early launches. I left on a Tokyo liberty. Sometime that evening my name was inserted into the schedule on the 6AM launch. I returned from liberty and fell into the rack at 4AM. I was rousted from my bunk at 5AM. I made it to the pilot ready room after my usual fighter pilot breakfast. The XO was waiting. I stammered, "Sir. I don't feel up to flying."
Tom Ross said, "Get your ass in the aircraft and don't give me any crap!"
You bet your sweet bippy I went! However, I nearly dinged my leader during our section takeoff. After that fiasco, Eight Hours Bottle to Throttle and a Fighter Pilot's Breakfast was burned indelibly into my mind.
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart, LtColonel USMC Retired